So we come at last to the third and final movie in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: Arabian Nights. For this outing, Pasolini has gone farther afield in medieval literature, if Arabian Nights can even truly be considered medieval. First instances of the collection date back to the 8th century, with more stories from various cultures being added over the years. (I was more than a little surprised that two of the most famous of the tales – Aladdin and the Forty Thieves – didn’t enter the collection until the first French translation in 1704!)
True to the other movies in the Trilogy, Pasolini also jettisons the formal framing device of the traditional Arabian Nights, so say farewell to Scheherazade and familiarize yourself with our first tale, which will take its place: the arrival of a slave girl Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) at the market – unusually, she is allowed to choose her new master, and isn’t shy about insulting prospective buyers. She chooses a young man, Nur Ed-din (Franco Merli) as her new master, and hands him a bag of a thousand dinars to purchase her, and procure a home.
This is, as one might imagine, a pretty sweet deal, especially since Zumurrud takes special pains to make sure Nur is no longer a virgin, and then starts using her talents at embroidery to keep the money coming in. Alas, Nur is a bit of an idiot, and proceeds to allow Zumurrud to be kidnapped – twice – and will spend the rest of the movie looking for her. Zumurrud escapes her second captor (one of the forty thieves, no less), and crosses the desert dressed as a man. She comes to a rich kingdom, where, luck would have it, the king has just died and it is the city’s custom to proclaim the next man to come in from the desert as the new king. Again, a totally sweet deal.
The first stories are read from a book by Zumurrud while the two are still in the idyllic stage of their relationship and rather serve to set up Pasolini’s view of this world: in the first, a noted sage and his wife make a deal about who will fall in love first between a boy and a girl they’ve arranged to have drugged so each will awaken in the same tent, but at different times; but they discover they’ve both forgotten about hormones and declare it a draw when both immediately hump the other. In the second, a rich poet picks up three willing young men for an evening of sex and poetry. If anything, Arabian Nights is even less inhibited than the first two movies, but no less playful or joyous in its couplings. It’s also the most open about same-sex relations between males. Pasolini possibly thought that a society with such strong segregation between the sexes would result in more openness about homosexuality, and as film scholar Tim Rayns points out in his excellent essay on the Criterion Blu-ray, a general exodus by gay Beat writers like Burroughs to the Arab world in the 40s and 50s bears that out.
(One particularly lovely bit that springs from this segregation regards Zumurrud’s wedding night, when the supposedly male king is forcibly married to a vizier’s daughter. Taking a chance, Zumurrud reveals her true nature to the daughter, and the girl responds in peals of laughter, delighted that a woman has put one over on the men running the city.)
At one point in Nur’s miserable wanderings, he is hired by a girl to act as porter for her day’s purchases at the market. She winds up buying quite a bit (Nur’s goggle-eyed response at the list she rattles off to a merchant is another splendid comic moment, ending with his staggering under a huge bag of goods), and Nur dines with her and her sisters (and bathes with them afterwards,as Nur has the devil’s luck with women). After the meal, the girl who hired him reads from a book, and so begins our next major round of stories.
This is the most adventurous part yet, as the story begins with a king’s son, Prince Tagi (Francesco Governale) finding a man weeping at an oasis over a painted cloth. This man tells the story of falling in love with another woman on his wedding day, and breaking the heart of his poor cousin, who nevertheless helps him to meet and finally bed this woman, while she herself dies of a broken heart. The man telling the story is Ninetto Davoli, who we recall is the man who broke Pasolini’s heart back during the filming of The Canterbury Tales, and it is likely no accident that the director cast him as a thoughtless and selfish young man. Reading intention into the fact that the woman he’s bedding eventually castrates him… well, that might be going a bit far.
Tagi, however, is overjoyed, because the assignations took place in Princess Dunya’s garden, and the cloth is her work, and he is in love with her! So the two head to the city and he manages to finagle his way into Dunya’s garden, only to be told that the Princess is a man-hater of the first water, due to a dream she once had. Tagi decides to create a beautiful mosaic in the garden, which will show her an error in her dream. He hires two beggars to help him with the mosaic, who turn out to be traveling holy men, who each tell the tale of how they came to be so, as both were princes who ran afoul of mystic, even demonic forces (once again, Franco Citti providing the demonic role). Well, Tagi’s mosaic works, and as he consummates his love with the formerly man-hating Dunya, we come back to the dinner with the sisters. Stories nestled within stories! Impressive!
And because I know you’re wondering, Elisabetta Genovese, whom I was crooning over in Canterbury Tales, is the girl who hired Nur Ed-din. And yes, she did smile, so my evening was complete. Yes, she also got naked, but that is none of your business. Nur Ed-din does eventually find the city, and Zumurrud cannot resist making him think that the King wants to bugger him (and as the soldiers carry the surprised boy to the King, men at the market are heard to say the Arabian Night version of “Yeah, I’d jump that”), but true love wins out, though I’d really love to see how much more complex that particular relationship was going to become. As it is, quantum mechanics would have been needed to map it out.
As I said, this is the most uninhibited of the three movies; perhaps by moving events to the middle east, Pasolini finally felt he was out from under the Church’s thumb, and finally free from Catholic guilt, could cut loose. There is quite a bit of sex on display here, but rarely is it explicit with a capital X – again, it is Pasolini yearning for a time before sex became another commodity, when it was a simple, loving act. If you want commercialization, you seek out the many rip-offs that followed the Trilogy of Life’s success, imitators that caused Pasolini to denounce his own work, to disavow them, and to settle back down to a trademark rage against politics and the world he found himself living in, with Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom.
As Rayns also points out, the Trilogy of Life is the rather unusual act of Pasolini being positive, after so many political movies, poems and treatises that were angry fist-shakes at the powers that be, the status quo. And it’s true: these movies contain much about the foibles and often hateful nature of human beings, but they’re more about the better things: trust, love, and, certainly in the case of Arabian Nights, sex. In it, the two are inseparable. I haven’t even mentioned the amazing locales Pasolini found, vistas that he could pan over without much in the way of obvious modernity. It’s a handsome picture, and I wish Pasolini had not been so brutalized by a carnivorous culture that fed upon the very thing he despised, commercialism. I wish this phase of his career had lasted longer. What could he have said with more time? As it is, we must be satisfied with what we have. Now I’m fascinated, and will be seeking out his earlier works. And I think now that I have context, I can finally see Salo and meet it on its own terms.
Here, have a trailer mostly obscured by vintage VHS noise, which is okay, because it gets pretty NSFW, anyway. And ponder that this most commercial of creatures, the movie trailer, casts Pasolini in a light he likely would have despised.